Shame has always struck me as a very negative emotion: Something to be avoided at all costs and a powerful force that can drive individuals to desperate acts up to and including suicide. Lately, with a nod to the Trump White House or the Pruitt Environmental “Protection” Agency, a bit more shame would be a very good thing.
Having grown up and been educated in the US (including a BA in Political Science and a law degree), I was always reassured that we were a nation of laws, replete with checks and balances carefully enshrined in law by the Framers to protect the nation. Some 40 years later I’ve come to learn that many of the rules I had taken to be law are in fact only political norms lacking the force of law and effective enforcement mechanisms. So, for example, every presidential candidate in modern history before Trump has released his tax returns because it was unthinkable not to be transparent about financial matters that could raise conflicts. Similarly, once elected, presidents divested of their material business interests to avoid actual conflicts or even the appearance thereof. Trump is happy to thumb his nose, with Mussolini-like indifference, to convention and happily maintain ownership of hotels and other properties at which representatives of foreign governments and special interest groups curry favor.
The United Kingdom has always relied on the power of shame and public shaming to shape the conduct of its citizens. The mere whiff of shame is usually sufficient to enforce the desired social norm and the recognition bestowed by the Crown on knights, dames, lords and ladies works as a carrot-like reward in counterpart to the stick of shame. An episode last year served to underscore both the positive and negative aspects of reputation in the UK. In April 2016 the retailer BHS fell into receivership with a £571 pension hole soon after its sale for £1 by Sir Philip Green. Over the years Sir Philip and family were reported to have extracted £586 in dividends and rent from the company. The ensuing public shaming campaign was relentless and included calls for Green to be stripped of his knighthood. By February 2017, Sir Philip coughed-up £363 to the Pensions Regulator to partially restore the gap and save his knighthood.
A more recent UK example of the effectiveness of shame as a force for social suasion involved the (now former) Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, who resigned in the Windrush scandal.. The Home Secretary resigned in April after it was disclosed that she was aware of Home Office deportation targets after denying such knowledge publicly. As lies go, Ms. Rudd’s untruth would barely qualify as one of Donald Trump’s 6.5 average daily lies (per The Washington Post).
Thus, how craven it is for Donald Trump to remain in office despite his daily onslaught of deliberate untruths, his repeated racist dog whistling, his misogynist groping and “locker-room talk,” his myriad conflicts of interest and graft, his disdain for the closest allies of the US and treasonous succor of its greatest enemies, and his ongoing obstruction of any attempt to hold him to the rule of law, let alone political norm.
Unfortunately, shaming is only really effective if the body politic and media speak with largely one voice. As long as Republicans in Congress, Fox “News” and a cabal of largely superannuated advisers and commentators fill the sails of this dreadful president with the winds of sycophancy, we should not expect Trump himself or his equally reprobate cabinet members like Scott Pruitt to act decently. Pigs seldom respond to requests for good table manners when snout-deep in the trough.
As with the Magna Carta and respect for the rule of law over the law of kings, the US still has much to learn from the UK. Such a shame.